Monday, January 24, 2005

Spiritual But Not Religious

I got into a small fracas over at Philocrites (don't read him if you don't want to get hooked -- 'cause he's one of the very bestest of the best in liberal religious blogs) about my sense of dreary exhaustion when yet another person describes him or herself as "spiritual but not religious." My point on Philocrites (and on here) is that millions upon millions of people these days claim to be"S.B.N.R.", so why is this most often proclaimed to me in such proud, ringing tones that I feel that the proper response is to jump up and salute? It's either that or it's made as a chip-on-the-shoulder, rebellious claim (think Elvis Presley saying "I'm spiritchal but not religious" with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth), thrown at me at such occasions as weddings -- as though I will scrape my chair away from the table in shock and disgust. "Spiritual but not religious!? I've never heard of such a thing! Sir, hand me another dinner roll, please, and cease to speak to me thereafter!"
It doesn't shock me, it doesn't offend me, it's not a unique, interesting identity, it's a cliche. If it's meant to be a conversation-starter, I can't see how. Perhaps, "So tell me about the religion of Self you've concocted from bits and pieces of your rejected religious upbringing, your reading, your intermittent attendance in houses of worship and your acquaintance with pop psychology? I'm just dying to know!"

I am committed to church life. I believe in salvation through church/synagogue/sangha/etc.
I know that the label "S.B.N.R." may be an expression of painful disenchantment or abuse by organized (or disorganized) religion, but a lot of the time, it's just not. I meet people all the time with truly unconventional spiritual lives, paths and interests who never feel the need to use this particularly jejune label; let's retire it! What is meant to sound so brave and unique about "S.B.N.R." functions instead for me as shorthand for, "I, a consummate member of the consumer culture, have not found a religious product that suits my needs, a religious community and tradition that maintains my comfort level, and a worship tradition that suits my schedule. Therefore, I choose not to partake. And that makes me a rugged individualist, and therefore superior to the rest of you kneeling and hymn-singing drones." The latter point is often implied by that kind of "I've thrown my gauntlet down" tone that makes me want to crawl under the table with my blankie and take a nap.

So what I know about that Mr. or Ms. SBNR is this: Instead of being willing to form their character and forge their spirit within the itchy, difficult, often uncomfortable crucible of covenanted community, that SBNR guy or gal sits on the sidelines, judging and critiquing the liturgies and theologies and personalities of the actively religious, staying away because details of community life irritate them, reading and filling his/her head with exactly what suits their current world view, surrounding themselves with exactly those people who agree with them on most important issues (a favor which extends to reinforcing their self-image), and -- worst of all -- thinking of themselves as counter-cultural! Hence my weariness. Counter cultural? Yes, our current administration is crazy bad religious. Yes, 80%+ Americans say they believe in God. So what? Belief in God doesn't make someone religious. Being bound by the claims of a religious tradition and a religious community makes someone religious -- committing to a regular, transforming, shared spiritual experience and encounter-- ESPECIALLY WITH THOSE YOU WOULDN'T PICK TO BE YOUR PALS -- that's the heart of religion, whose root word means "to bind together."
Maybe the Spiritual But Not Religious person is bound in mutual accountability and spiritual growth through some means other than the church or synagogue or mosque or ashram or sangha or the theatre or the Cause or the 12-Step Program, etc. I sincerely hope so. But if he isn't, taking smug pride in claiming to be S.B.N.R is just sad to me; sad and floppy and a source of woefully misguided self-satisfaction.


Blogger Chalicechick said...

(((that's the heart of religion, whose root word means "to bind together.")))

Actually, it doesn't.

I know this because my friend the linguist told me and he is rarely wrong on such things.

I asked for an explanation for the layman and he wrote

"Dear SSW:
This is all that I can do, from the office.
Latin religio is a type of noun that can be formed either from a verb
ending in infinitive -are (like ligare "to tie") or from one in infinitive
-ere (like legere "bring together, gather, collect; a late sense is "read").
The identity of the root vowel in leg- is irrelevant since the leg- would
go to lig-in the middle of the word when the prefix is added by a Latin
phonetic rule which is well known although not quite clear in detail.
The adjective religens (attested in accusative singular "religentem",
see Oxford Latin Dictionary)is formed as a present participle from the same
verb religo, religere. It occurs in a quotation which indicates that it
means something like "observant, pious"; thus it is formed from the same
stem as religio. A participle from religare "tie together" would be
religantem with an -a-. So presumably the semantically related religio is
formed from the same stem and is also from the infinitive re-lig-ere.
Once that point is made, it becomes clear that there are several words
forming a semantic nest, like negligere/neglegere "not be careful,
solicitous, be indifferent to" in which the neg- is a negative particle.
Mann develops that contrast. The -lig-/leg- alternation means nothing
because sometimes basic forms are restored in compounds (like
re-lig-io)under the analogy to the simple form (like leg-).
However, Thomas Mann did not claim to original in this etymology. He
was relying on a scholarly friend. His friend would have known that there
are good treatments which give the references and related forms in Alfred
Ernout and Antoine Meillet's "Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue
and in Alois Walde and J.B. Hofmann's "Lateinisches etymologisches
Woerterbuch". There is a monograph in English on the development of the use
of the term in Latin; I think that it is by Fowler and that the reference
is in Ernout-Meilet."

Now, if you want to question the vaildity of assertions made by a linguist who doesn't quite understand the words "for the laymen," feel free, but he's generally right about such things.

who WISHES "religion" came from that root as it sounds cool.

Blogger Peregrinato said...

Regarding religio/religion and etymology...

I don't think CC's (forwarded) response is considered airtight by the linguistic or etymological community. It is one very strong candidate, but a quick websearch* indicates that there are a number of possible origins and meanings of the word religio, and one expert's opinion is still simply one expert's opinion -- even if it is much better informed than the non-expert's. Generally, I think it is less the fact that we (the nonlinguists) have been uninformed for generations on the "true meaning" of religio, as much as the fact that the word is likely nuanced to have very many interpretations and applications, even from its origin. Look at the current problem of defining what makes a religion a religion, even among the experts...

None of this is really relevent to Peacebang's general commentary, which generally resonates with me.

*I note here I am not a linguist. I do not play one on TV. However, I am fairly skilled in research and am quite good at assessing the scholarly value of resources, even on the web, and weeding out ephemera. So accept this as the research (commentary of a non-linguist, but professional researcher.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oversoul here, I come here from the land of Philocrites.

I liked Peacebang’s comments on SBNR folk…until I read “that SBNR guy or gal sits on the sidelines, judging and critiquing the liturgies and theologies and personalities of the actively religious” It hit a bit close to home; every January I endeavor to improve my “spiritual” life by deciding to find and join a church-and to stick with it. I never seem to make it though, because I’m largely afraid of leaving the relative comfort of the sidelines (I never actually even visit a congregation).

So maybe I need to work harder on this aspect and find a good local church; or heck, just start one myself ;)


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